Harper’s Stands Firm for Paywalls and Print

printfingerprintThere is one venerable title in the publishing world that is consciously not dabbling in a business model based in anything but print.

John R. MacArthur, publishers of Harper’s Magazine, insists that print is the only lasting foundation on which literary journalism and sophisticated fiction can rest, according to Ravi Somaiya in the New York Times.

“But Mr. MacArthur is not compromising,” Somaiya writes.  “Harper’s, which is nonprofit and funded by a foundation, has been available online for a decade. But to read anything, you must subscribe to the physical magazine too. It remains to be seen whether history will judge him as a resolute visionary or a stubborn martyr.”

MacArthur is non-apologetic when asked to explain his position and his feelings on digital journalism.

“I’ve got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the Internet and blowing off steam,” he said. “If they want to do that, that’s fine. But it doesn’t pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism.”

“We’re trying to create an island, I hope, of economic and literary sanity,” MacArthur continued and he believes he is not alone in that. “The world is coming back in the direction of paywalls, and of print,” he said.

As Somaiya points out, “a number of publishers have indeed been drawn back to glossy pages and the smell of ink.”

“It is the joy of being at an intimate, nice dinner, where the table is well set, and six or seven people are having an informed and elegant conversation, instead of being in a gym with 10,000 people yelling,” said Tyler Brûlé, the publisher of the international culture magazine Monocle, which makes about 70 percent of its money from print according to Somaiya.

“His thesis is built on three pillars,” Somaiya explains. “[According to MacArthur] the web is bad for writers, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.”

Perhaps the fact that Harper’s, which has paid circulation and sales of about 150,000, is funded by a foundation makes it easier to take this stand when publishers all around are trying anything to see what sticks. Still, it must be a relief for the 26 employees of the magazine to be able to focus on quality writing, without the distractions of sponsored content, native ads and free digital content, things MacArthur insists will not happen under his watch.

“I just want people to pay,” MacArthur said. “How many times do I have to say it?”

Seems reasonable to us.